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Salem: Colonists, Museums and History

We spent last weekend in Salem and Portsmouth, two beautiful coastal towns located in Massachusetts and New Hampshire respectively. While we had already spent a day in Portsmouth earlier this year, before we got married, neither of us had ever been to Salem.

The name Salem may sound familiar to you. You may have heard about the 17th-century witch trials the town is so (in)famous for. Either way, chances are that you don’t know what exactly happened there.

Town Hall of Salem, MA.
Town Hall of Salem

Let me explain.

Salem’s Hysterical Colonists

In the Middle Ages the Catholic church created the stereotype of witches – which in fact were hugely important people in rural communities, as they were the people with knowledge about healing plants and natural medicines – in an attempt to destroy their ‘competition’. I think it is fair to say that they succeeded.

In the spring of 1692 a group of young (and probably bored) girls in Salem Village claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several women of being witches. Colonial Massachusetts was soon the subject of a mass hysteria and a court was assembled in Salem to judge specific cases. The first person to be convicted was Bridget Bishop; she was hanged in June. Eighteen other people were also executed on Gallow’s Hill and one man was pressed to death. Almost 200 innocent people were accused and locked up in the following months.

The hysteria had subdued by September and the public turned against the trials. Everyone was released from prison and the shame and bitterness about the witch trials would last for centuries.

Essex Street lantern statue, Salem.
‘Statue’ of a woman on Essex Street. I’m still not sure if this is supposed to be a ‘witch’

Fear is dangerous. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a stranger, a wild animal or a rare natural event; fear induces prejudice and stereotypes, can cause hysteria and is almost never a good guide.

Commercial Museums

Now people are cashing in big time on this sad story. All over modern-day Salem you can see witch museums, witch shops and witch houses. You can go on witch walks and ghost tours. It’s kind of ridiculous.

Witch museums in Salem, MA.
Witch museums, witchcraft shops,…

Besides the commercialized witch hype, Salem actually is a pretty nice coastal town. Its main pedestrian street is lined with nice little shops and is pleasant to stroll through. And you will see plenty of psychics, Christians and tarot card readers advertising their own products or services.

The Salem Witch Museum.
The Salem Witch Museum

In order to criticize the commercialization of a historic event, you, of course, first have to visit and experience the actual places of commerce. So, we visited the Salem Witch Museum, which actually gives its entrance fee payers ($9.50) a nice overview of the events through a live presentation and guided tour. The shop, in contrary, sold everything from plastic pumpkins and broomsticks to witch masks and fake vampire teeth. While the guided tour was aimed at informing people that witches are in fact real and well-meaning people – Wicca is one of the most peaceful religions in the world –, the store again confirmed the stereotype that witches are ugly, evil and scary.

Why is it so hard nowadays to find a place that offers information without also having to focus on commercialization? It bothers me.

Witch Brew Café in Salem, Massachusetts.
An example of witch-related commerce

A Rich History

Luckily, Salem is not only a town of tragic historic events. It is also a town with a rich seafaring history. The town’s harbor used to be one of the largest international ports in the colonies.

Old Port in Salem, Massachusetts.
The Old Port
Custom House in Salem, Massachusetts.
The Custom House near the Old Port district
America's oldest candy company, Salem.
America’s oldest candy company

We walked around the old port district for a bit and meandered to the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion (also known as the House of the Seven Gables), a building of major importance in Salem and National Historic Landmark.

The mansion was built in 1668 by captain and businessman John Turner and owned by another sea captain, Samuel Ingersoll, later. Both men’s voyages at seas during Salem’s Golden Age of Sail had brought them great wealth.

House of the Seven Gables, Salem.
House of the Seven Gables

It was also the house the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne used to visit as a kid; it was owned by his cousin Susanna Ingersoll. Spending time in this house inspired him to write his classic novel ‘The House of the Seven Gables’. At a much later date, as the house was restored, it was adapted a bit to make it resemble the house described in the book a little better.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace can be visited on site as well. It was built around 1750 and relocated to the grounds of the House of the Seven Gables in 1958.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's birthplace, Salem, MA.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace

We paid the $12.50 entrance fee and took an excellent guided tour.

The first thing we did after parking our car was paying a visit to the visitor center, located on the pedestrian Essex Street Shopping Mall. We picked up a free map and started walking around. A red line on the map shows a suggested walking tour past all major landmarks and attractions. Now, the great thing is that that red line is painted on the sidewalk as well. You don’t really need a map to get around – although it does help to know where you are exactly.

Shops in Salem, Massachusetts.
A red line guides visitors past all major landmarks and attractions
A pilgrim captain's grave at the Old Burying Point Cemetery, Salem.
A pilgrim captain’s grave at the Old Burying Point Cemetery
Artists' Row in Salem, Massachusetts.
The colorful Artists’ Row (notice the red line!)

Fun fact: One of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ancestors was John Hathorne, the only judge involved in the witch trials who never regretted what he did. In an attempt to mask this unflattering family history, Nathaniel added a ‘w’ to his last name.

Statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Hawthorne’s statue

This article is also available as a smartphone app, allowing you to use it as a reference when visiting Salem. You can get the app right here!

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4 thoughts on “Salem: Colonists, Museums and History

  • Salem is a lovely town (except in October). The Pagan/Witch commercialization is a bit over the top, but it is one of the few places where those of us who walk the Path can express ourselves without the scorn that happens elsewhere in America, so I don’t mind it.

    That female bust you took a photo of isn’t a witch – it’s a figurehead from a ship, reflecting the maritime history of Salem. 🙂

  • Bram, We loved Salem and even got into the kitschy, commercial museums…it was fun and quirky. Plus, it’s such a gorgeous New England town, isn’t it? Love your photos as always!

    • I liked the town itself a lot too, but the kitsch not so much. It is, however, a beautiful town indeed, one that you can only find in New England. I’m glad you like me photos! 🙂

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